Commentary

War on Terror Does Not Require a War Machine

By William A. Niskanen
This article was published in the Financial Times, August 21, 2003.

Following the terrifying events of September 11 2001, most Americans supported more effective measures against terrorism. For that reason, presumably, the Bush administration has argued that both the war in Iraq and a large increase in the US defence budget are necessary measures in the war against terrorism. In both cases the administration is profoundly wrong.

In a speech in Cincinnati on October 7 2002, President George W. Bush asserted that “confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror”. From the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 2003, Mr Bush argued that “the liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror”. Most recently, in a mid-July joint press conference with Tony Blair, Mr Bush concluded that “the removal of Saddam Hussein is an integral part of winning the war against terror”.

But repeating an argument is not making a case for it. At no time, for example, has the administration made public any evidence that the Iraqi government supported the September 11 attacks or backed al-Qaeda or any other global terrorist group. In fact, al-Qaeda’s leadership regarded the secular Iraqi leaders as infidels for failing to make Iraq an Islamic state.

Moreover, the Iraq war may have undermined the global war on terrorism.

There are four main reasons for this. First, specialised intelligence resources have been diverted to support the Iraq war and the reconstruction. American intelligence units have only a small number of Arab speakers and specialists, who cannot be seconded to Iraqi operations without reducing the necessary support for the war against terrorism.

Second, the Iraq war may have reduced other governments’ willingness to share intelligence with Washington, or arrest suspects in their own nations or extradite them to the US.

Third, the cost of the war may have slowed the build-up of domestic defensive measures by the new Department of Homeland Security.

Last, the Iraq war is likely to provoke al-Qaeda and other groups to target Americans at home and abroad. Iraq itself has been the scene of violence against US forces, other countries’ interests and, with the bombing of the United Nations headquarters, the international community itself.

While there may have been some important reason for the US war in Iraq, the anti-terrorism rationale is spurious. However, the Bush administration has also used the war on terrorism to justify a large increase in defence spending. The first chapter of Mr Bush’s budget for fiscal year 2004, entitled “Winning the War on Terrorism”, proposed a budget for the Department of Defence that was 34 per cent higher than the one Mr Bush inherited in 2001. In May, Mr Rumsfeld defended the proposed budget as “the first to reflect the new defence strategies and policies and the lessons of the global war on terror … Towin the global war on terror, our forces need to be flexible, light, and agile.” That line of argument was apparently persuasive enough to persuade the Senate to approve, 95-0, a Dollars 369bn (Pounds 232bn) budget for the Pentagon for fiscal year 2004.

The prospect of more wars like Iraq may justify a larger defence budget but the war on terrorism does not. Terrorists operate in small bands and use often primitive weapons. They aim not to defeat a military force but to cause enough damage to induce governments to change their behaviour. The Department of Defence may need, among other things, a ballistic missile defence system, three advanced fighter bombers and a new surface ship — but not to fight terrorists.

An effective war against terrorism is not a conventional war. The most useful weapons are good intelligence — shared among national governments, among the various US intelligence agencies and between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local US police departments — and effective local policing. The Bush administration has yet to explain how an expanded military can defend US citizens against terrorist cells that use car bombs made out of fertiliser.

There may be important reasons for increasing the defence budget but the war against terrorism is not one of them. Almost all Americans support an effective war against terrorism. The Bush administration should demonstrate a commitment to this war by ending the use of this broad concern about terrorism as a spurious rationale for other policies.

William Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute.